The arrival of a book by Stefan Zweig is always a time for celebration chez dovegrey ever since I first discovered his writing the day I decided to explore some of the authors whose books had been banned in Nazi Germany. I think this in turn was a trail that had opened up after I had read Stones From the River by Ursula Hegi. It sounds like an odd reading trail to follow but I was intrigued, what had been so controversial about these books and their authors, I wanted to know.
I had unwittingly already read books by a few but I had never heard of Stefan Zweig and so began that little addiction and Pushkin Press to the rescue with The Royal Game, Twilight, Moonbeam Alley and Fantastic Night & other stories read in quick succession.
The Post Office Girl, translated by Joel Rotenberg, arrived from Sort Of Books, one chapter and I was instantly in it for the home run. The setting is perhaps classic Stefan Zweig, mittel Europe between the wars and Christina the Post Office girl of the title living a dull, miserable existence in rural Austria. Working in the Post Office by day and caring for her invalid mother the rest of the time Christina Hoflehner's life is a grey and joyless relentless grind until a letter from her mother's sister, who has fared altogether better in the marriage and wealth stakes, invites Christina to share a fortnight's holiday with them. Klara has suffered sudden onset pangs of guilt at her serial neglect of her sister over the years and this gesture towards her neice will surely make amends as she and gruff husband Anthony van Boolen travel from the US for a relaxing high society sojourn at a luxury hotel in the Swiss Alps.
Christina's is the generation in Europe that stood to lose the most from the Great War and the sense of resentment and dissatisfaction is profound in this book,
'Surrounded by this coarse and lustful postwar generation she feels ancient, tired, useless, and overwhelmed, unwilling and unable to compete...the war stole her decade of youth. She has no courage, no strength left even for happiness.'
By the age of twenty-six Christina has already prepared to hunker down and accept her lot, until of course she samples life at the glittering Palace Hotel. Exposed to the silken smooth world of money and luxury, where the furniture gleams and the carpet suspires Christina steps in to sample a way of life that she eventually realises will change her forever.
It was always going to be a moment of extreme cruelty when the clock struck midnight and this Cinderella is catapulted back into the harsh reality of life at home, the cramped, musty little box-like garret flat smelling of vinegar and a lifetime of the dull day job and caring for her dropsical mother with the bloated feet.
The happily ever after bit will surely rely on the entrance of a cheekily handsome prince on a white charger galloping in stage left, so when the only man on the horizon is Ferdinand, a thin, bitter and angry down-at-heel survivor of the Russian front, wearing not a gold encrusted doublet and a pair of natty hose but a worn-out inverness coat, you start to worry for poor Christina and wonder quite what the rescue plan might be.
Right that's it, no more plot, enough is plenty, not a word more.
Stefan Zweig was a great friend of Freud so expect plenty of 'who am I really' deliberations and some wonderful character development in Christina but I also came away with a very clear idea of the despair, blame, anger and hatred that fuelled and propelled a generation towards another war. The portents couldn't be outlined with more precision as Stefan Zweig focuses on the inequalities and injustices that pervaded people's lives. If you know anything about Stefan Zweig's personal life also be prepared to identify other more sinister portents about which I will say no more either.
This was the archetypal page-turner of a book, the best I have read by Stefan Zweig to date even, people I cared about and just had to know how they fared, which leads me onto my only single solitary disappointment which I will share.
Despite high quality production values, a perfectly judged cover and good weight paper, I'm wondering whether I had a rogue copy, did mine just miss the glue machine?
I'm reasonably gentle with books as I read them but I do always crack spines and this is the first book to do this in a long time. It started to fall apart in my hands halfway through and thereafter I was done for, just about every page fell out as I turned.
The publishers will hate me for this and booksellers will definitely want to shoot me on sight, but if you plan to buy this edition I'd give that spine a little workout before you do.